Pakistani cities are new battleground for Taliban

Although the Pakistani military claimed victory in a key Taliban stronghold in the Swat Valley on Saturday, the government found itself confronting a new battlefront -- a bombing campaign in the country's cities.

Pakistani troops now have complete control over the main city of Mingora, with clashes lingering only on the outskirts, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Saturday.

Only a week ago, the military said it was expecting a long, hard-fought battle with Pakistani Taliban militants who had fortified themselves in the city's hotels and buildings. It now appears that, after initially putting up stiff resistance, many militants chose to flee.

"When they realized that they were being encircled and the noose was tightening, they decided not to give a pitched battle," Abbas said.

But the militants may have decided to fight another way: seeding fear in other parts of the country through well-coordinated bombing attacks.

Bombers struck in three Pakistani cities last week. In Lahore, gunmen Wednesday attacked a building housing local police and Pakistani intelligence agents before detonating explosives in a van, killing 27 people.

A day later, attackers set off bombs on motorcycles parked outside busy markets in Peshawar, the largest city in northwest Pakistan, and exchanged fire with police. At least six people were killed and more than 50 injured.

That night, suicide bombers killed four police officers on the outskirts of Peshawar and two people in Dera Ismail Khan, to the south.

Security has been tightened in Islamabad, the capital, and other major cities.

In Peshawar, a pall of fear hung over the city as residents avoided mosques and bazaars. Schools and colleges were shut down, and extra police patrolled the streets.

"People are constantly living in terror," said Jan Alam, a security guard in Peshawar. "It's because of the offensive and these bomb attacks."

Pakistan launched the offensive in the Swat Valley to drive out the Taliban about a month ago. Troops have retaken large sections of the area once controlled by the militants, but the campaign has also led to a massive exodus of civilians.

Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said that as many as 3 million people have sought refuge either in tent camps or with friends and relatives.

The military offensive has the support of the Obama administration, which has grown increasingly concerned about the militants expanding their control over northwest Pakistan. This spring, the Pakistani Taliban extended its reach into the Buner district outside Swat, 60 miles from Islamabad.

Military officials said Saturday that the leader of the Taliban militants in Swat, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, remained at large.

Pakistani officials have acknowledged that some Taliban fighters will inevitably escape. Authorities say militants have been shaving off their beards and blending in among the masses of displaced people streaming into camps set up near Mardan, Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad.

Last week, Pakistani authorities said they had arrested 39 suspected Taliban militants in camps or at houses where refugees are staying. Abbas said troops have set up checkpoints on roads in Swat to intercept fleeing Taliban, but they do not have the manpower to patrol the myriad footpaths that run through the picturesque valley.

"They're able to flee, but we're trying to catch as many as possible," Abbas said.

More than 1,200 militants have been killed and 79 captured since the offensive began, Abbas said. Eighty-one Pakistani troops have died in the fighting, he said. He did not release any figures on civilian casualties.

The military's claims about the offensive cannot be verified because the government restricts journalists' access to the conflict zone.

Pakistani officials said early today that overnight clashes between the military and insurgents in South Waziristan left at least 30 insurgents dead. Two soldiers were killed and at least 10 were wounded, officials said.

Pakistani troops had geared up for a major challenge in Mingora, where they faced fighters entrenched in an urban environment with mines, fortifications and hidden weapons caches. Abbas said the militants had built bunkers in the city's hotels and government buildings. But after a round of fierce fighting at the start, the Taliban militants escaped.

The fighting destroyed the city's infrastructure, Abbas said. Restoring electricity is expected to take at least two weeks. Pakistani officials said they don't know when people who fled Mingora could return to their homes. As many as 20,000 civilians stayed behind when the rest of the 375,000 residents fled.

Authorities said they had been able to get some food and other aid to those civilians, but more is needed. A medical team was being sent to the city to reopen Mingora's hospital.

ajrodriguez@tribune.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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